Conflict & Justice

Cambridge is coming to terms with its close connection to the Boston Marathon suspects


A mural by students from the Community Arts Center in Cambridge celebrates their city and pays tribute to slain MIT police officer Sean Collier, killed in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings in April 2013.


Jeb Sharp

It took me a long time to realize just how deeply Cambridge, the town where I live, had been affected by the Boston Marathon bombings.

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In the beginning, we shared the same experience as other towns around Boston: mourning the victims, shoring up survivors, and hearing the stories of runners, spectators and first responders. But a few days later, there was a second chapter.

Authorities released photographs of the alleged perpetrators. They turned out to be Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, two brothers from a local Russian family with roots in the conflict-ridden republics of Chechnya and Dagestan. A harrowing night of violence unfolded as they tried to escape. By the end of that week, Tamerlan was dead and Dzhokhar was in custody. 

As the months went by, I kept bumping into people who seemed to hold different fragments of the story. There were so many anecdotes, so many different vantage points, and so many bit players. Everyone seemed to know someone who had been touched by the events.

And it wasn’t just people. Local landmarks associated with the suspects’ final rampage took on sinister significance — like the spot on campus where MIT police office Sean Collier was murdered and the gas station where their carjacking victim jumped out and ran for his life.

But beyond the physical drama, there was a deep psychological wound, as well. Cambridge prides itself on its outlook and cherishes its diversity.

The idea that two immigrant kids it had welcomed would turn on the community with such hatred and terror was more than disturbing. Adults who pour themselves into teaching and coaching and mentoring young people every day were bereft that two of their own had allegedly committed these atrocities.

“We’re proud to be a multicultural, accepting, welcoming environment,” says Damon Smith, principal of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, the public high school the brothers attended. “The connection that the two young men were students at our school was a tough pill to swallow because we’re trying to do what we can to shape young lives and also the world. We had to question a lot about our efforts. It was quite shocking.”

“Cambridge is a city that likes to extend itself,” says former mayor Henrietta Davis. “We believe every child can learn and succeed. We want to be believe that can happen and [we can] create that environment.”

That belief was shattered by the bombings. “Here these two young men, especially the younger one, seemed to be going along just fine,” says Davis. “What happened? How could such a thing happen in the same reality as our day-to-day world of making sure kids succeed and looking out for them and their families. How could this happen?”

Many in Cambridge have spent a year pondering that question. It hasn’t been easy, especially for young people at the high school where students still remember the younger Tsarnaev.

“There were so many kids who did love Jahar [Dzhokhar],” says 20-year-old Manuel Matos, who teaches teenagers in the media program at the Community Arts Center in Cambridge, "especially the kids on the wrestling team. Almost every kid I knew from the wrestling team posted pictures when they used to hang with him.”

The whole thing still eats away at Matos, who remembers Tsarnaev from school. “I don’t feel like Jahar woke up one day and said 'hey, we’re going to do this,'” he says. “I feel like someone convinced him to do it. The only reason I can’t rest easy with it is because I feel like someone changed him that way.”

Yvonne Appiah was a senior at the high school when the attacks happened during school vacation week. She remembers going back the next Monday.

“The school was quiet,” she says. “Everyone was scared. It’s a pretty big high school, so usually it’s loud. Everyone is so happy. But this was no time to be happy. People lost their lives. People lost their legs. Someone is in a wheelchair who should have been walking. People were crying because they knew him, so it was just kind of like how could he do something like that. It was scary.”

Appiah is a freshman at UMass Boston now, but she can’t get away from the story. She says when people hear she went to high school in Cambridge they say, “Isn’t that where the bombing guys went to school?”

“It’s always going to be there,” Appiah says. “Someone does something bad [and] it puts a bad image on the whole community.”

The high school principal, Damon Smith, says all these feelings and layers are still right there beneath the surface in the community. “What we refer to now is the new normal,” he says.

Smith says it’s hard not to second-guess yourself, not to wonder whether someone in Cambridge could have done more to spot warning signs in the younger Tsarnaev.

“But I’m beginning to come to peace with the idea that we have a huge impact as a school on the life of a young person, but we’re not the only impact,” he says. “As much as we thought we were, there were obviously things shaping his development in ways that we didn’t see.”

Former mayor, Henrietta Davis, has been through a similar evolution.

“I’m humbled by how little one community can do for one child when global forces out there make such a bigger difference,” she says. “In particular, when I learned about Chechnya and the violence in Chechnya, I realized we were in a different space. They had a whole world going on around them and it wasn’t something we could understand, control, or have an impact on.”

In that sense, Cambridge is a changed and chastened place. One year on, victims are being remembered, survivors are healing and life for most of us has gone back to normal. But the troubles of the world do seem that much closer.